Snow Dry as Paper

Mattie Morris Kyser sat down. Outside, the snow continued to fall. It was a dry snow. Like paper. She touched her hair. Not even damp. Inside, the bus was too warm. Mattie opened the window. Just a crack. A thin line of chill touched the side of her face. It felt good.

Mattie had a bench seat to herself. But sitting so close to the window made it too easy for a stranger to invade her space. She closed the window. She scooted over toward the aisle.

“Excuse me.” Josh Rivkin tipped his hat.

“Not at all.” Mattie, knees tight together, swung her legs to the side.

Frank California had nodded and smiled when Mattie dropped her bus token into the farebox. It made that sound, a good, bright sound. Slugs made the wrong sound, a dull, brittle sound. When Frank heard a slug fall, he did something, he had to, it was his job, and it wasn’t always pretty. Back at the depot, slugs were tallied, and the money deducted from the driver’s pay. A slug meant more than a free ride: it was stealing Frank’s money.

“Do you mind?” Josh Rivkin gestured toward the window.

“Not at all,” Mattie said again, as though that were all she ever said. This man was going to smoke. She knew it. She’d protest—to the driver if necessary. The window opened, way more than needed for a cigarette. It was winter. It was cold. It was snowing, for God’s sake. Josh Rivkin stuck his entire head out of the opened window. He shouted, “Hey!”

A car across the street started, pulled into traffic, and sped off in the opposite direction.

Josh Rivkin had his hand on Mattie’s thigh now. “Be quiet,” he whispered, “I’ve got to think.” Mattie saw the gun. She’d be quiet.

Frank California had a funny feeling. Something was wrong. The sound of that last token wasn’t right. He’d been slugged. He looked in the mirror. The offender was in the fifth row. Frank stopped the bus. He stood up. He turned. He moved deliberately toward the perpetrator.

Josh Rivkin squeezed Mattie’s thigh. It hurt. She winced. “Don’t do anything stupid,” he snarled. Mattie would do nothing at all.

“I’m going to have to ask you to exit the bus.” Frank had to say that first. It was in the bus driver’s handbook. After that, he could do whatever it took. He stood in the aisle, fists clenched, waiting for a response. He’d give the guy to the count of five. He didn’t say the numbers aloud, but his lips moved. “One, two, three…”

Frank heard the shot and felt the pain. He died in Mattie’s arms. Later, she spoke to the police.

“He saw what that awful man was doing. He must have. He stopped the bus. He came to my rescue. It’s lucky we weren’t all killed. I sure hope you catch him.”

Frank California was a hero. It said so in the papers. Mattie saved the papers. Josh Rivkin didn’t get away. He was caught trying to pass a counterfeit twenty at a 7-Eleven. Mattie Morris Kyser picked him out of a lineup. The bus company gave her a lifetime pass. Mattie rode the bus every day, and anyone who sat beside her heard the story, the whole story, starting with the snow, so dry it didn’t dampen her hair.